Published: February 24, 2009
By Rex Bowman
Floyd County animal-control officer Garland Nester went to kill an errant cow but shot a farmer instead. A jury could begin deliberating as early as today whether Nester should be punished for the farmer’s death.
Yesterday, on the first day of Nester’s involuntary-manslaughter trial in Floyd Circuit Court, special prosecutor Clifford Hapgood told jurors that Nester’s use of a firearm during the May 29 incident near Meadows of Dan showed gross negligence and callous disregard for the safety of others, leading to the death of 75-year-old Paul Belcher.
Belcher had parked his pickup truck on the side of the road to help Nester get a roughly 850-pound cow back into its pasture. The cow belonged to Nester, who rented grazing land in the pasture next to Belcher’s farm. Belcher was shot after taking a few steps from his truck, according to evidence presented yesterday.
“I heard these shots, then Paul screamed, ‘Oh, I’ve been shot,‘“ recalled his widow, Jean Belcher, from the witness box. By the time she reached her wounded husband, his life was ebbing away. He had been shot in the abdomen.
“On this one particular day, this animal-control officer was not only not controlling animals, he was not controlling himself,“ Hapgood said.
“This death needs to be punished.“
Defense attorney David Damico of Roanoke suggested to jurors that Belcher’s death was a tragic accident, the apparent result of a bullet ricocheting off the cow’s right foreleg. Nester, he said, never saw Belcher, who was up on the raised roadway, Conner Grove Road, 190 feet from Nester and not in Nester’s line of sight.
“There was no way for Mr. Nester to know Mr. Belcher was there,“ Damico said.
However, Amy Tharp, assistant chief medical examiner for Western Virginia, testified that the wound to Belcher’s abdomen did not appear to come from a ricocheting bullet because it apparently entered his body in a tight spiral. If it had ricocheted, said Tharp, the bullet would have wobbled, just as a quarterback’s pass does after a defensive lineman deflects it.
Hapgood had hoped to show jurors that Nester, 45, was so angry after spending nearly an hour chasing the cow through a swamp, a copse and along the Blue Ridge Parkway that he lost his cool, pulled out his .357-caliber semi-automatic pistol and fired four shots with little thought. His son, Travis, stood nearby.
Judge Ray Grubbs refused to allow testimony about Nester’s anger because it was hearsay evidence: Travis had told Belcher’s brother and a high school teacher that his father was furious when he started firing at the cow. Grubbs would not allow Belcher’s brother or the teacher to discuss the son’s comment during their testimony.
Hapgood is to resume putting on his case Wednesday. Damico has not said whether he will put Nester on the stand. The jury would get the case after closing arguments. Nester also faces a charge of reckless handling of a firearm.